One of the side effects of writing a book about science fiction film is that I have to revisit (and in some cases, visit for the first time) a lot of pre-Star Wars science fiction film, and I’ve discovered that by and large I have a prejudice against these flicks. The reason is simple: Pre-Star Wars science fiction film are cheesy more often than not. Until Lucas whacked that box office ball right out of the ballpark, science fiction films were basically marginal programmers; you might get a The Day the Earth Stood Still or Invasion of the Body Snatchers here and there (and in 1968 you got the 1-2 punch of 2001 and Planet of the Apes), but by and large they were the “B”-movie on the double feature program, and for modern eyes, they’re difficult to watch.

Not that they’re not fun, in their way: I spent part of the weekend watching Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers, the DVD release of the 1936 serial, and I enjoyed it — and to my surprise so did Athena, who uttered the memorable quote: “I liked it so much, I didn’t mind it was in black in white.” But, man alive, is it bad: It’s like a community theater production, and it’s hard to tell what’s more wooden, star Buster Crabbe’s delivery or the rocketships themselves. It’s the sort of film where a civilization capable of moving a planet through space fights with swords, one character locks another in a spaceship by kicking away a step stool, and eternal alliances are created by this sort of dialog:

Professor Zarkov: Flash, this is Prince Barin! He hates Emperor Ming, too!
Flash: Well, that’s good enough for me!

And yet, this sort of unripened cheese is indisputably canonical on the science fiction genre, if for no other reason than a young George Lucas had the top of his little head absolutely unscrewed by the tripe, and the first chance he got, he used it as a foundation upon which to build Star Wars, from which the modern age of science fiction film sprang, for better or worse. It’s bad, but it’s important.

This isn’t to say the main run of SF films after Star Wars are necessarily any better than the ones before it: Alien Vs. Predator, say, makes no more sense than Flash Gordon does, and I know which of the two I’d want to watch again, and it ain’t AVP. The difference is that the genre is taken more seriously now by Hollywood, so when you do get crap in the genre, it is at least a highly polished pile of crap; you don’t see the seams as often as you do in science fiction films from the 30s through the 60s. But I believe the best of today’s science fiction is better than the best (or most significant) science fiction films prior to ’77.

Naturally, I try to correct for this prejudice of mine. Particularly on the technical level — practical and special effects — it’s ridiculous to hold films from the 30s or 50s to the standard since the 70s (it’s unfair to hold films from the 70s to standards of today, too, which is why Lucas eternally fiddles with his first Star Wars Trilogy). And to some extent, you have to handicap for writing and acting as well; not as much, and especially not so much with some of the high-end canonical films (some mentioned above), but on a general level, yes, the handicap kicks in.

But it’s also worth noting that science fiction is the only genre where you have to handicap. The best comedies of the 30s or 40s are as good as the best comedies today, or even better, depending on your tastes: I wouldn’t trade The Philadelphia Story for the entire Farrelly Brothers filmography. Dramas don’t suffer; film lovers can skip from On the Waterfront to The Godfather to American Beauty and not skip a beat. Gone With the Wind is still the gold standard for epic melodrama, with Titanic taking a distant silver; Wizard of Oz has only recently been supplanted by the Lord of the Rings series as the best fantasy, and it took Disney 50 years to equal its animation run of Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. And despite the (relatively) recent Oscar successes of Chicago and Unforgiven, the past owns the musical and the western.

Among all film genres, science fiction stands alone as the one whose present is incontestably better than its past, at least at its highest levels. It’s one of the things that makes writing a book about science fiction film interesting — and at the same time a very tricky prospect. I don’t want to undersell early science fiction films; doing that would be inaccurate and wrong. At the same time, however, I want to make sure that people understand that if there’s a golden age of science fiction film, it’s probably now. Take a good look — this is what a golden age of film looks like.

24 Comments on “Prejudices”

  1. I completely agree on the quality of 30/40 comedic films versus the modern day. Aaah, “The Philadelphia Story” – My husband would argue this point with me, but I think it’s a better love story than Casablanca. I guess I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

    Speaking of my husband and movies, he’s attempting to revive his high school film class next year. The last time he taught the class his kids fell in love with “All About Eve” especially the girls. And the immigrant students (mostly Ukrainian and Hmong) adored all the Chaplin films he showed them – although I think that was a CLAD class (bi-lingual english class). He says it’s great fun getting these kids to appreciate GREAT films from the past.

  2. I wonder why the acting and the writing is bad in the best of the pre-Star Wars science fiction films. I suspect it’s because sf was considered inherently bad, and good writers and good actors wouldn’t have considered it. Or if they considered it, they considered it to be career suicide. Since Star Wars, the box office appeal has been clear, and since Close Encounters, the career suicide thing has been pretty much out.

    I suppose the question is this: can you imagine any top screenwriter who wouldn’t consider doing sf? Any top actor who wouldn’t? Any top director? But it’s hard to imagine Cukor doing R.U.R. or Hitchcock adapting 1984 or Montgomery Clift playing Elijah Bailey.


  3. Best wishes to the poster’s husband who is trying to revive a high school film class – I took my first film class in high school and it still affects the way I see movies to this day (in a good way!).

    I will especially always remember how much we loved Buster Keaton (Charlie Chaplin – yeah, we liked him, but we LOVED Buster). Later in the semester, we screened “Sunset Boulevard,” and during the card-playing scene, we all delightedly exclaimed, “BUSTER!” when he briefly graced the set. It was as if the man himself had unexpectedly walked into the room.

  4. Vardibidian wrote:

    “But it’s hard to imagine Cukor doing R.U.R. or Hitchcock adapting 1984 or Montgomery Clift playing Elijah Bailey.”

    Basically correct, though there were exceptions — Robert Wise did “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the screenplay of which was written by Edmund North. Both of these two would go on to win Oscars: Wise for West Side Story and Sound of Music, North for Patton, which was directed by Franklin Schaffner — who had directed Planet of the Apes. Schaffner also picked up an Oscar for Patton. It’s also worth noting that the PoA script was co-written by two-time Oscar-winner Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun and Bridge on the River Kwai — although it wasn’t until much later that he was acknowledged for Kwai because he was blacklisted at the time). And then there’s Kubrick.

    But certainly the number of top-line writers/directors who will happily do sf/fantasy is *far* greater now than prior to Star Wars.

  5. I thought “Sky Captain” was fantastic. I admit I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to that era, 30s and 40s style and design and architecture. But this film works in many ways that other special effects-laden films don’t.

    I was amazed at how SUBTLE the special effects are. Because every single thing in the film (except the actors) is a special effect, it doesn’t overwhelm you like other movies where the special effects seem out of place or cheesy or devour the story. For a movie that was almost all special effects, this subtlety was surprising. It plops you into the world and assumes that you believe that world, and then gets on with the story.

    Some will say that the plot isn’t that “original” or the story is “lacking.” I don’t know about that. It’s a genre flick so the plot is going to head in a certain direction. Personally, I think that plot is one of the least important parts of any film (or novel). It’s the characters and the writing and the direction and the ideas. And this is a really fun movie: great cast, never boring, some funny one-liners, tons of references (especially “King Kong”), and kick-ass visuals. Hey, that’s all I ask for. I’m gonna see it again.

  6. I would say that we’re already beyond the Golden Age of SF films, actually. For me the Golden Age starts with Star Wars in ’77 (or maybe 2001: A Space Odyssey/Planet of the Apes in ’68, depending on how you feel about early ’70s SF) and pretty much peters out by the early ’90s or so.

    It seems to me that most of what’s called SF these days is either action or horror set against a science-fiction backdrop.

    And Dawn, for whatever it’s worth, I saw Sky Captain yesterday and loved it, but then I enjoy stuff like Flash Gordon. Sky Cap is every cliffhanger serial I saw as a kid and every pulp adventure I ever read, all condensed into one convenient package — it’s nonsense, but it’s fun.

  7. I actually saw Sky Captain too this weekend. I enjoyed it. It was funny, upbeat and pretty. I pretty much turned off my brain to the plot out of self-defense. I *like* plots in my movies, but recognize that it isn’t always *necessary*.

    I agree with John, the subtley of the special effects was just beyond cool! I kept thinking they were on real sets, but I knew they weren’t.

  8. I’m trying to figfure out where the NEW Star Wars trilogy fits in; on the one hand, they obviously have some damn good special effects (balloon cows notwithstanding). But the plotting is sketchy at best and most of the acting is wooden as an oak desk.

  9. I watched “Soylent Green” on TV a year or two ago.

    I went into it prepared to mock, perhaps to write a high-larious play-by-play of the movie for my blog.

    But instead I found it was a damn fine movie.

  10. Gonna take a dig at you John.
    ” science fiction is the only genre where you have to handicap. ”
    Nonsense. There are many comedy and dramas that do not age gracefully and are now dated. What you give as examples are classics wich like literature are the best of the crop and do become timeless. The problem is Sci-fi is the youngest of the genres. The baby of the family. It’s childhood is riddled with just as much mistakes as its older siblings; it just they are fresher in our memories and archives. Much of the early bad comedy and dramas are fortunatly “lost” They did not have obsesive packrats going out of their way to preserve them all. Sci-fi is not about the special effects, its about the story. Close your eyes and listen to the story.(well that won’t work with Solaris) When enough time passes the best sci-fi will live and the dreck will die(If we kill enough obsesive packrats in archives first). This is not the golen age of sci-fi, yet. I peg it at just finished high scool now in college years.

  11. “Wizard of Oz has only recently been supplanted by the Lord of the Rings”

    Must say I find it very hard to see these two as being in the same category to begin with. Surely films such as Krull or Willow stand in closer competition to LOTR theme and style-wise?

  12. Guy Matthews says:

    “Must say I find it very hard to see these two as being in the same category to begin with. Surely films such as Krull or Willow stand in closer competition to LOTR theme and style-wise?”

    Well, sure, they’re closer. But “Oz” is indisputably a fantasy, as are the “Ring” films. It’s the same species, different breed. Sort of like how a chihuahua and a St. Bernard are the same species, although you wouldn’t know it from looking at them.

  13. “Sort of like how a chihuahua and a St. Bernard are the same species, although you wouldn’t know it from looking at them. ”

    Are you sure they’re the same species? The producing fertile offspring part would be a bit
    of a trick.

  14. Robert Wise and The Day the Earth Stood Still may be the exception that proves, well, doesn’t prove much of anything that I can think of. I wonder how it was received (not at the B.O., I mean, but among critics and agents and so on).

    As for PotA, well, it may well be that modern SF filmdom starts in 1968, or at least that after 1968 a totally different paradigm applies. Two obvious questions come up, I guess: (a) how did actors’ and their agents’ experience with the Twilight Zone affect their willingness to do sf movies, and (2) how come the best sf movie between 2001 and Star Wars was directed by Woody Allen? I hope your guide will include a Best SF Flick of each year, by the way.

    Oh, and in response to Adela, is science fiction as a written genre any younger than the mystery novel? And you certainly don’t have to handicap those; by 1950 there are more all-time great mystery films than there are great sf films by 1980. The distance between the start of the pulps and The 39 Steps is something like thirty years. The distance between the start of the ‘Western’ story and Stagecoach is less than that, right?


  15. Ummm, as much as I agree with the rest of the post, I have to take strong exception to the slap at community theater! One rarely finds the heart and soul of performing in most professional theater companies. Example: the professional touring company production of “Children of Eden” that was here in Washington, DC this last spring was nowhere near as well reviewed as the community theater production of it which took place about 30 miles southwest of the city. (Full disclosure: I was in that production, but the reviews do speak for themselves.)

  16. “Are you sure they’re the same species? The producing fertile offspring part would be a bit of a trick.”

    Don’t you remember the Great Wawa from “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers”?

    “My mother was a Great Dane and my father was a Chihuahua. I know what you’re thinking: he stood on a chair.”

  17. But is “Star Wars” actually Science Fiction?

    Methinks John W. Campbell would dismiss it as Space Opera. Certainly there’s not much scientific about those dogfights, replete with the sound effects we so enjoy. In that aspect, “2001”s one of the few films to get it right.

    ‘Course nowadays, anything with rockets gets categorized as Sci-Fi, even “Apollo 13.”

  18. Rash says:

    “But is ‘Star Wars’ actually Science Fiction?”

    You bet. The ships and laser guns and whatnot are assumed to have come from practical invention — from mortal minds as opposed to gifts from the gods. The science is implicit (even if it’s wrong). Lucas has even rationalized the Force with those damned midichlorians of his.

    “Space Opera,” which I would also agree SW is, is a category of science fiction.

  19. I tend to define sf vs. fantasy by looking at the furniture. If it gots spaceships, blasters and Galactic Empires, it’s science fiction. If it gots dragons, elves and wizards, its fantasy.

    That’s true even if the science in the science fiction, like “Star Wars,” is purest bolonium, or the fantasy, like “Lord of the Rings,” is grounded in meticulous research into linguistics, history and folklore.

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